What's The Big Deal With Pedra Branca?

SINGAPORE- The day of June 1, 2018, saw yet another historical détente in the fight between Singapore and Malaysia over Pedra Branca. On February 3, 2017, Malaysia reported the findings of three new documents and submitted them in a bid to open up the case that was previously sealed by the United Nations (UN) in 2008. These new findings included a 1958 telegram by then Governor of Singapore to Britain requesting a special high sea channel close to Pedra Branca, which Malaysia believe proves that the Governor asked for because he didn’t believe the water around the isle was within Singaporean territory. Malaysia also sent forth a naval report from 1958 where a British vessel regarded Pedra Branca as Malaysian territory, and a 1962 map with handwritten notes made in 1966 indicating Pedra Branca was outside Singapore’s control. This is despite the 2008 ruling relying on similar evidence to appoint the isle to Singapore. But the fact that Malaysia would want to reopen the case so many years after the initial verdict makes us question why Pedra Branca has garnered so much attention from the two neighbors? What’s the big deal with Pedra Branca? 

The Little White Rock
 

Located 24 nautical miles east of Singapore and 8 nautical miles south of the Malaysian state of Johor, Pedra Branca is at a strategic location at the Eastern Entrance to the region from the South China Sea. In a time where multiple nations are fighting over territories in the South China Sea, Pedra Branca serves as a prime location for either nation to station troops as watchdogs that can send out warnings during a large conflict. Moreover, after Pedra Branca was assigned to Singapore, Malaysia was given control over its Middle Rocks, which was seen as a meager settlement until Malaysian farmers reported the increase in their fishing capacity due to the access provided by the Middle Rocks. Pedra Branca, the Portugese term for white rock, hence serves two important functions as a herald of disputes and landmine of resources. 

History Is On Our Side 
 

The conflict in 1979 was also stirred because Malaysia submitted a map depicting Pulau Batu Puteh, the Malay term for white rock and hence Pedra Branca, as within its territory. Yet the court still ruled in Singapore’s favor despite this as the Horsburgh Lighthouse was passed on from British control to Singaporean personnel because of their existing control of the water around the isle without any Malaysian protest. More importantly, a top state official from Johor also wrote a letter in 1953 to British personnel claiming that “the Johor government does not claim ownership of Pedra Branca.” This directly contradicted one of Malaysia’s key arguments that the 16th century Johor monarchy claimed ownership of the island. 

Moreover, Singapore has had a claim on Pedra Branca even before it gained its independence. In 1824, the British and the Dutch signed a treaty indicating the lawful possession of the isle in the hands of the British. As a result, Indonesia cannot claim the little rock to day as a former Dutch colony despite being closer to it than both Singapore and Malaysia. Hence it was natural that Singapore gained custody of the lighthouse and its operations after establishing itself as its own State. Yet Malaysia’s stirring doesn’t acknowledge the 1824 agreement and hence any map or claim it submits was disregarded by the UN as unauthorized.  

Total Annihilation and Mayhem 
 

While the UN was reviewing the case in the early 1990s, Malaysia threatened to plant its flag on Pedra Branca, causing Singapore to release a statement indicating that anyone engaging in this will be arrested. Unaffected, Malaysia planned a Malaysian-Indonesia military exercise involving the landing of parachute military officers under an operation called “Total Annihilation”. This was to be conducted in southern Johor, very close to the border between Malaysia and Singapore on August 9, 1991. This resulted in the Singapore Armed Forces and the reserve forces becoming mobilized and on high alert under Singapore’s Operation Trojan. A brutal day for both sides, this incident emphasized how serious and threatening a small territorial dispute had become even for neighbors as diplomatic as Singapore and Malaysia. 

The Culmination 

While the appeal to look over the 2008 ruling was not as sensationalized, it still came as a shock to Singapore and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). However, Singapore maintained its legal defense, which also included Mr. Rodman Bundy and Professor Alain Pellet, who were its foreign legal counsel in the original case. All members of Singapore’s defense maintained the belief that Malaysia’s application to review the case had “very weak legal basis.” On June 1, 2018, Malaysia itself withdrew its claim and requested the ICJ to remove the hearing from its list. The hearings, that were scheduled to span over two weeks starting June 11, 2018, at The Hague, Netherlands, have officially been canceled too. Malaysia also announced that “the (involved) parties had agreed to discontinue the proceedings in the aforementioned case”. 
 

The United Nations has been efficient in handling territorial disputes so far, with the 2008 Pedra Branca issue being no exception. Singapore and Malaysia are also far more compliant than other nations that have tried similar cases at the ICJ. With existing bilateral ties and trade relationships, the two nations would lose more than just the resources and potential offered by Pedra Branca by aggravating the issue further. The 2008 ruling has been satisfactory for both nations so far, and despite re-appealing, Malaysia has acceded to the ruling once more. Only time will tell if this arrangement is something they can both live with or a battle of the wits that has simply simmered down for the time being.

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